Garrett (garote) wrote,
Garrett
garote

Response to Crichton

Michael Crichton published a speech that you may find interesting. This entry is my response to it.

First, a quick note: Near the end of the essay, he lambastes the scientific community for having such a supposedly unwarranted negative view of the book The Skeptical Environmentalist. I highly suggest you read this article about it, which interprets the book's publication as a case study in the modern manipulation of news. Crichton likes a scrappy underdog just as much as the next writer, but he forgot to ask himself how the book became popular despite the supposed "litany" from scientists.

Anyway:

A rat will find a lever that always produces food, and press it only when he is hungry - but show him a lever that produces food just once in a while, and he will press it obsessively, even when he's not hungry, even if it eats into his time for more healthy, reliable activities.

All us humans are the same way. Every obsessive urge in our human psyche is derived from some version of that unpredictable lever. If the outcome is important, but could go either way, we pay close attention to it. Naturally, this behavior applies to our discussions of science too. It's quite natural for people to expend the most energy discussing the least clear areas of investigation.

Aliens, global warming, nuclear winters - All these things Crichton talks about are plagued with conflicting evidence, or lack conclusive evidence, so they are wide open for this kind of discussion.

Alien life is open for debate because of the vastness of the universe. Until we find conclusive evidence of aliens, they could always be right around the corner. Our ongoing search has certainly made some original estimates seem foolish; the night sky is not exploding with alien signals. But as the odds skew towards life being more rare, the potential payoff of the discovery increases: Anything we learn from it will be more statistically important in teaching us about ourselves. So at best, it could benefit all of scientific knowledge, and at worst, it could be a fruitless waste of good time and money, and the means to either end is exactly the same. So what do we do?

Nuclear winter was a popular concept in the 1980's and even the setting of a handful of popular films - just as a global warming "catastrophe" was recently popularized in theaters. (Scientists were rolling their eyes and mocking it the whole time this modern film was out - but it was extreme even for the extremists.) A nuclear winter in the 1980's and a weather catastrophe brought about by global warming in the 2000's have an important thing in common: We can't, or won't, verify their scientific basis directly.

In the case of global warming, we can't just try burning all our oil fields all at once, and chopping down every tree simultaneously, and then measuring what happens for a few years. In the case of nuclear winter, we can't just try detonating 5000 megatons worth of explosives around the planet and scrutinizing any dust clouds that appear. And in the case of SETI, we can't just hop on an intergalactic subway train and conduct a door-to-door survey of the universe ... yet.

Which leads to an interesting point: Space exploration is still in its infancy. We're still at the level of the conquistadors. But once we do get the equipment together to embark on an interstellar voyage, we have to be pretty sure about one important thing: Where to send it. I think that question alone justifies the existence and work of SETI.

But anyway. Yes, global warming debate is a big politicized mess. Crichton says that we need to refine and police our research so that the question is no longer up for debate, the same way that subsequent research has chipped away at the theoretical severity of a nuclear winter. The same way that SETI is slowly answering its own questions. And he says that we're only having this problem with global warming because politics and science have become so intertwined. He says that scientists are compelled to practice intellectual dishonesty in order to sell products, win funding, or win votes.

So how do we discourage this? How do we drive a wedge between the integrity of dispassionate research, and the stink of profits to be made? Assuming our schools and libraries produce great scientists by the truckload, where can they work that is safe from the popularity contest that is public appeal?

Right now, their options for employment are:

1. Work for a corporation whose success is tied to the public appeal of their products.
2. Work for a university whose prestige is tied to the public appeal of their research.
3. Work for a government whose existence is tied to the public appeal of their policy.
4. Work for an entity whose funding is secured through one of the above.

That covers just about any place they could conduct scientific investigations and still feed their families. No matter what, public appeal will be involved to some degree, and it's very hard to escape. The more they try to escape it, the smaller the job pool becomes.

It seems inescapable. It seems like, no matter what, integrity can be compromised because money must be made. Even Crichton's proposed solution of a government-funded double-blind testing bureau has one terrible glaring problem: Who decides what experiments to run? Public and private meddling seems inevitable.

But on the other hand, it never has been any other way. The organization that has had the biggest impact on our modern cultural attitude toward science is the American space program ... and that was driven by a rather unscientific mix of jingoistic pride and the threat of intercontinental war. Regardless of its origins, the space program brought scientists - as a professional group - into our cultural foreground as heroes. It fostered a respect for science across several generations, and drove innovation all around itself in fields of computers, flight, chemistry, astronomy, et cetera.

Not a bad track record for an endeavor that was inspired by political forces. Certainly a much better use of the American public's billions and billions of dollars than invading, bombing, and then attempting to rebuild a war-torn desert country halfway around the world, against international law and opinion. But I digress.

So scientists are mixed up in politics - and scientists have always been mixed up in politics. So how is the example of the space program different from our more current debate over global warming? Is there some crucial difference that explains why NASA had a positive effect, while this movement hasn't? I think it's a pretty simple one: Politicians approved and funded the space program but no one told the scientists involved how to do their jobs. The case is very different with global warming: Many huge organizations stand to profit or lose - mostly lose - based on policy decisions that are, in turn, informed by scientists doing research. The most obvious organizations on this list are the automobile industry and the oil conglomerates - large and very visible contributors to the CO2 gas imbalance in this planet's atmosphere.

Now at this point, the popular response from the hip and jaded is, "Oh be quiet you damn hippie, corporations are not inherently evil, quit blaming them for all the ills of the world!" So let me make this clear: I am not blaming corporations for the ills of the world. I am blaming the auto and oil industry for deliberately clouding the issue of global warming by kicking the process where it hurts: In the scientists.

By visiting the EPA's website, we can cut through the smoke - smoke that Crichton has inadvertently contributed to in his diatribe - and see what the US government currently believes about global warming. The two things they declare up front are: 1. Humans are contributing to a buildup of CO2 gases in the atmosphere, and 2. the global temperature is rising, and the change is at least partially due to humans. We are adding CO2 to the atmosphere at the same time we are destroying the planet's established cycle of CO2 conversion, through deforestation.

Given that science makes no guarantees about the reversibility of this gas buildup, the proper policy seems glaringly obvious even from those two points - even disregarding the rest of the EPA's discussion. We should embark on efforts to reduce our gas emissions, because of the unknown factors, not despite them. If we don't know what the hell a huge hole in the ozone layer is going to do, we should stop creating one!

Put this way, it's the exact reverse of the "nuclear winter" problem: The science there was cloudy because we didn't want to detonate 5000 megatons of nukes to test our theories. Here, we haven't stopped making a big hole in the atmosphere despite the fact that the science is cloudy and no one knows what will happen.

Why haven't we stopped? Because lobbyists have distracted us with a handy straw-man argument: "Only hippies are saying that global warming is happening at all. True scientists are not. Hippies don't know science, but they hate corporations. Save us from the hippies!" ... And while we spew hateful remarks at each other in the press, THE EPA is saying that global warming is happening. The EPA definitely ain't hippies.

So, long story short, I don't know why Crichton has a bee in his bonnet about global warming, as a phenomenon. However, I do believe he's right that it's a unique challenge to the scientific community: Because it reveals the degree to which large organizations with an eye toward profitability can jack scientists around, and it's a particularly public example of it: When it suits their aims, they endeavor to pull science out of its own arena, by grooming scientists like movie stars and commissioning research like it was a stage play, and they have eager help from media outlets hungry to sell ad-space and make the news. It's all too easy. If you convince people that science is conducted like a PR campaign, that science is indistinguishable from an episode of Jerry Springer complete with louts and liars and shouting matches, then you have confounded scientists. The public is successfully turned from legitimate skeptics into powerless-feeling pessimists, because they know in their gut that the information on either side is not trustworthy anymore.

In the face of this, scientists are ill-equipped. Their profession is not meant to cater to the limelight. They have to be too willing to admit that they are wrong, or unsure - too willing to be reasonable - to stand up in an episode of Jerry Springer. Nor should we generally expect them to, but we're suckers for a good story. We also can't do a lot to curtail powerful lobbyists from trying to spread disinformation. They will always have money to spend, and occasionally they will want to spend it in disingenuous ways.

What we need to do - and this is a solution that Crichton ignores - is renew our enthusiasm for understanding science at the public level. Essentially, we need to teach the public about the freaking scientific method. Engineers and researchers spend their workdays swimming in it, but what about other people who don't have to apply it constantly for a living? What about teachers, cops, managers, and salesmen? What about bus drivers, stock boys, secretaries, and dock workers? These people are the "meddling" general public, with whom the government interfaces. They're the people who consume the news and watch the stage plays. If they don't understand the difference between popularity and evidence, and how one is absolutely never a substitute for the other, then that right there is the true failure of our generation. A whole generation of people unfamiliar with the practice of science: That is the arena in which lobbyists have their way, in which popularity trumps all because there is nothing else to rely on. How different of a country could it be, how different a media landscape would we have, if even the local stock boy could read a newspaper article and say, "Hey, that isn't a valid theory. It's untestable! Plus, where's the damn evidence?"
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